It's a good time for Rock Band 4 (as made famous by Rock Band, Rock Band 2, Rock Band 3, LEGO Rock Band, The Beatles: Rock Band and Green Day: Rock Band.)
That's a lot of Rock Band to take in over the span of the four years between the 2007 release of the original band-in-a-box game and the third numbered instalment in 2010.
Between all of those and the seven games released for Activision's Guitar Hero series in the same time period (not counting Band Hero), it's no wonder it's been half a decade between proper releases.
It's been five years since a big box of plastic instruments bundled with a video game has been released, and over two years since Harmonix stopped pumping out regular downloadable songs for Rock Band 3. We've all had time to rest and reflect, maybe purchase one or two of the fancy new consoles on the market.
That's enough of a break. Back to pretending to rock out.
Developed once again by Harmonix of Amplitude fame and published by Mad Catz, a company keen on selling everyone guitar and drum controllers (while supplies last), Rock Band 4 is less a sequel and more a fresh start for the series.
That's a kind way of saying they have stripped away a lot of the bits fans really enjoyed in order to provide a more streamlined experience. For example character creation used to be much more involved -- Harmonix wanted players to really invest themselves in their avatars.
In Rock Band 4 we have a choice of two lanky body types -- masculine and feminine -- and a set selection of head shapes. We still get to dress up our virtual band and style their hair, but there's no deep customisation here.
Instrument specific challenges are gone. Road challenges? Nope. Battle of the Bands? Poof. My beloved keyboard tracks? Pretty sure Harmonix took them out just to make me cry.
What we're left with is what some might consider a more "pure" Rock Band experience. We can "Play a Show", "Go On Tour" or "Quickplay". That's it. Harmonix could certainly add more in future game updates, but for now those options are what we have to play with.
I'd be more disappointed if not for the game's role-playing-ish Tour Mode. Each step along the road to fame and fortune the band (Endangered Anarchy in my case) is given choices that determine how the next batch of gigs is going to go. Do they pool their meager cash together to purchase a beat up van to branch out from their hometown, gaining more fans and retaining the ability to choose (or vote for) their own set lists, or join up with an even cheaper manager for the promise of more money but less creative control?
Over the course of the tour a story unfolds, and hilarity often ensues. Maybe the band has to play with borrowed instruments because they were stolen out of the shoddy van. Perhaps they have to wear specific clothes due to a deal with a fashion blogger. It's the most fun I've had with a campaign mode in Rock Band, and I can't wait to play through again to see where the opposite choices take us.
But first I'm going to gather a ton of downloadable songs to pad the game's 65 on-disc tracks. After years of DLC and importing songs from earlier games, it's hard to go back to a limited set list, especially during a prolonged touring session. Thank goodness downloadable songs from previous generations of the game are available for re-download or purchase (one at a time), and once Harmonix makes previously imported collections from older games available for download I'll be golden.
Until then I'll get to experience both new songs and old with my new arch nemesis, the freestyle guitar solo.
Along with giving vocalists the ability to use their own freeform melodies at higher difficulty levels, the freestyle guitar solo is Rock Band 4's biggest innovation. At points in songs that feature guitar solos (and that includes all of the older downloadable songs), the regular note track is replaced with a series of guidelines for improvising their own stringed masterpiece. Follow the guides and they keep their combo going. Or they can just go crazy for the sake of crazy.
The idea here is the mechanic is built so no matter what the guitarist does, the freestyle solo melds properly with the rest of the band. I've not found this to be the case.
I guess it's close most of the time? I imagine in the hands of a plastic guitar virtuoso this feature will be utilised to create some amazing masterworks.
I turned it off. I need not this freedom. Give me pure music.
The music in Rock Band 4 ... well, different people have different musical tastes. I might get excited about the inclusion of Live's "All Over You" while someone else is thrilled about Elvis' "Suspicious Minds." We like the songs we like.
But over the years I've come to appreciate Rock Band and its ilk as the music discovery engines they are. I'm trapped in a game with an incredibly eclectic mix of music, and no matter how many times I luck out with something recognisable, eventually I'm going to have to play "Dead Black (Heart of Ice)", and maybe I'll enjoy it. Some of the unfamiliar songs from past installments have transformed my musical taste completely, and these are songs I never would have heard otherwise.
So the best critical response to Rock Band 4's track listing is I wish it were larger -- but that's just a smaller room to be trapped in. I've already got some new favourites, as well as a couple of songs I despise even greater than before. Looking at you, "Uptown Funk".
"It's more Rock Band," I've been telling friends and family inquiring about Rock Band 4. Though it's been five years since the last release and four since I've played regularly, it feels as if I just picked up my guitar and continued where I left off. The core game is the same. The plastic Fender Stratocaster feels the same in my hands. The drums have the same muted thump, their surface the same cat-hair magnet material as before.
There are features missing. There are songs from older releases I long to play ("Maps" -- dear god I need "Maps"). There's no longer a reason to dig my keyboard controller from under the couch. And, should I re-enable the feature, there's a chance my guitar might sound like an orgy of howling cats.
But the desire has returned, as if it never left. I sit in front of the television at the end of a long day. I look to my wife. She reaches for the microphone. My fingers curl around the neck of a fake guitar. It's a good time for Rock Band 4.